What Is Flexible Electronics?

Benjamin Arie
Benjamin Arie
Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

"Flexible electronics" or "flex circuitry" are technologies that uses flexible plastic materials for electronic circuit manufacturing. Circuits that are built using flexible electronics use standard components such as transistors and resistors, but can be molded to a specific shape. This method allows very compact and rugged devices to be created.

Flex circuits often use special plastics to hold components. These plastics, including polyimide, have very high tensile strength. This means that the structure can be significantly deformed without breaking. Many flexible electronic devices also employ flexible flat cables, or "FFCs." These types of cables take up much less space than traditional wire harnesses, and are able to bend without becoming damaged.

An electronic device built using flexible electronics has several advantages. The ability to wrap a circuit board into a desired shape allows very compact and efficient layouts to be created. A digital camera that uses traditional rigid electronics, for instance, must usually use a rectangular circuit board. Cameras with flexible circuits are not limited to one shape, but can be molded into more compact designs.

Some devices which use flexible electronics are specifically designed to be bent or deformed during everyday use. Many folding cell phones use flex circuits to withstand the stress caused by constantly opening and closing the display. Flexible circuitry can be used to build rugged gadgets that are not easily damaged when they are dropped or abused.

Computer displays are one type of technology that are usually very sensitive to impact and vibration. The rigid monitor of a laptop or smartphone, for example, can be permanently broken if it is hit with an object. Flexible electronics can resist the damaging forces that would crack an ordinary screen. This is similar to the different between dropping a piece of glass and a piece of plastic. The structure of a plastic component allows it to absorb energy without being permanently affected.

Many researchers are pursuing the use of flex circuits for the next generation of mobile electronics. In the future, extremely flexible plastic displays could be used as digital newspapers and magazines. These devices could be folded or rolled like paper, yet still allow users to view graphics and data. This technology could also be used to integrate flexible solar panels or other electronics into clothing. Some scientists are hopeful that this approach could allow devices to be constantly charged throughout the day, and help to integrate useful gadgets into everyday life.

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